There are many ways you can enhance sky color in Photoshop. Different methods create a slightly different result, so try them all to see which one you suits best in your workflow.
- Contrast adjustment
- Hue/saturation adjustment
- Photo filter
- Gradient tool
- Brush tool
- Luminosity mask - with a video tutorial
While I use Adobe Photoshop in this tutorial, the same principles apply to any software.
Why Enhance Sky Color In Photoshop?
One of the most important elements in an image is color. It's so important that it can either make or break your image.
Have you ever taken an image that is well composed with the correct exposure, but somehow you feel something is missing? It just doesn't appear to be eye-catching or has the power to engage with your audience.
Take a look at these two images below, which one steals your attention right away?
The answer is obvious, the one on the right...
Because the colors are more vibrant in that image.
Color has always been used as a tool in graphic design, advertizing, artwork, etc to draw our attention.
It's a visual language that we processed subconsciously in our mind before we understood why we have chosen, in this case, the image on the right. Color is a powerful tool that we should make full use of to enhance our image.
In this tutorial, I'm going to show you how to digitally enhance the color of the sky in your image to transform an ordinary photo to one that is more alive!
I'm going to show you a few ways to do it in Adobe Photoshop CS6. You can download the image used in this tutorial here.
1. Contrast Adjustment
- Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer - Select it from the adjustments panel. Slide the contrast adjustment bar towards the right to your liking. Make sure to pay attention to your image to avoid clipping the highlights or shadows. Also, make sure not to check the "Use Legacy" box as it will shift all pixel values and may cause clipping more easily.
- Curves adjustment layer - Select this from the adjustments panel. Curves is one of my favorite tools because it's so versatile. Once you've added the adjustment layer, apply an S-shape curve to boost the contrast.
- Levels adjustment layer - Another way to adjust the contrast is by applying a Levels adjustment layer from the adjustments panel. Once selected, you should see a graph that looks like a histogram. There are three small triangles at the bottom of the graph. The left triangle controls the shadows, the right controls the highlights and the middle one controls the midtones. Experiment by pulling the left and the right triangle slightly towards the middle first, then move the middle triangle either direction to your liking.
2. Hue/Saturation Adjustment
What I like about the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer is that it doesn't affect the contrast. The brightness and darkness of the sky remain the same. Similar to method 1, apply a layer mask if you don't want the adjustment to affect the foreground. Here's how you apply the adjustment.
- Vibrance adjustment layer - Select this in the adjustments layer. There are two adjustment bar: vibrance and saturation. Increasing vibrance mainly increases the intensity of muted colors (muted colors are colors that have been toned down with black, white or complimentary colors). It has minimal effect on the well-saturated colors (also preserves skin tones). Saturation increases the intensity of the colors in the image globally. When applied too much, you risk clipping the colors and losing information.
- Hue/Saturation adjustment layer - Also one of my favorite tools. You can either increase the saturation globally, or you can select the color you want to adjust. You can also click on the color on the image directly and drag to adjust that specific color. Change the blend mode to Soft Light for a more subtle effect.
- Selective color adjustment layer - This is a freestyle adjustment tool. Pick a color from the menu and change it by adjusting cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Experiment with the colors to the effect that you like.
3. Photo Filter
This is the quickest way of enhancing the color of the sky. Once you select the Photo Filter adjustment layer from the adjustments panel, choose a filter you like from the drop down menu.
The commonest filters used are warming filters and there are three types with different level of warmth. Once applied, you can increase the density of the filter, thereby increasing the saturation of the color of the filter.
I always check the box for "Preserve Luminosity" to make sure the brightness is not affected. To make the effect more subtle, change the blend mode. In the image above, I used a warming filter (85) with a density of 85 and blend mode to soft light. Again, mask the foreground if needed.
4. Gradient Tool
Another quick way to enhance the color of the sky. It's very similar to using a graduated ND filter. The extra benefit of doing it in Photoshop is that you can choose any colour you like for your digital graduated ND filter.
Before you start, create a new layer so you're not applying the adjustment directly on the image itself (in the name of non-destructive editing). Once you have selected the Gradient tool from the tools panel, check that Linear Gradient and Foreground to Transparent are selected.
Go to the top of the image, click and drag down towards the middle in a straight line by holding the shift key. Undo and repeat until you are satisfied with the result. Change the blend mode to soft light and mask out any areas you want don't want to be affected (foreground or part of the clouds). You can also reduce the opacity of the Gradient layer.
5. Brush Tool
I frequently use this method to enhance the color of the sky at sunset. In my opinion, the effect is more subtle and the image looks more natural in general. What you do is basically paint the sky with its existing color to enhance it.
In the example here, there are two colors in the sky: blue and orange from the sun. We will enhance them both separately.
Firstly, create a new layer. Select the Brush tool and hold down Opt/Alt for the eye dropper tool and click on the orange color in the cloud. The foreground color in the tools panel should now have changed to the color you have just selected (orange in this case). Now change the size of the brush to be just a little bigger than the size of the clouds, opacity to 50% (to start off with) and start painting on the clouds.
Now change the blend mode to either soft light or multiply and reduce the opacity of the layer to your liking. You can also experiment the effect with a different blend mode. If the effect is not strong enough for you, select the brush tool and paint more color to the clouds. Repeat the steps to enhance the blue color of the sky.
6. Luminosity Mask
This is my favorite method to enhance the color of the sky. In fact, I frequently use this method to selectively enhance colors in my workflow.
To learn more about luminosity masks, check out the Luminosity Masks resource page under Articles in the top menu.
If you know what luminosity mask is, go ahead and create your masks now. Because you want to enhance the color of the sky, you will want to choose a bright mask.
In this example, I've chosen brights 2 because it selects most of the sky while leaving the foreground masked. This means the foreground is excluded from any adjustment. Now create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, increase the global saturation of the image to maximum, but not to the point of clipping.
Next, fill the layer mask of the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to black. Go to the channels panel and select brights 2. Go back to the layers panel and click on the layer mask of the adjustment layer (not the adjustment itself but the layer mask). Select the Brush tool with foreground color to white, opacity to 50%, size to large and hardness to 0. Paint the sky to see the magic!
Because luminosity mask can be a bit more technically challenging, I've created this video tutorial to show you the steps.
What Can You Achieve With These Techniques?
Just to give you an idea of what these techniques can add to your image, I've included some examples of mine.
What Is Your Favorite Technique?
There's absolutely no right or wrong as to which technique you prefer.
Each technique has its pros and cons and I've given examples here for you to see what the effects look like. What I've showed you here is the basics of each technique. Of course, you can refine or elaborate it further depending on the type of image you have.
My all time favorite techniques are painting with brush tool and luminosity mask (technique 5 and 6), what's yours?
For more tutorials on image editing technique, please check out the editing technique resource page!